In a nondescript corner of an anonymous administration building on the campus of Israel’s Tel Aviv University, Yossi Leshem has been using the latest satellite technology to track the movements of a couple code-named Princess and Jonas.
For nearly a year, Israeli experts were able to track the pair as they left their adopted home in Germany and set out on their travels. Jonas traversed Europe to southern Spain, where he spent several months before rejoining his partner back in Germany. Princess journeyed east, across Turkey and Lebanon, passing through Israel, the Palestinian territories and Egypt before making a long stopover in Sudan. She then continued on to South Africa, returning to rendezvous with Jonas in Germany 235 days later.
For more than five years, Leshem has been tracking the travels of Princess and Jonas and dozens like them. He worries that their apparently benign wanderings could inflict death and devastation across the world, at a cost of untold numbers of human lives.
Princess and Jonas are birds – white storks, the long-legged waterfowl that nest in Europe during the summer and migrate south for the winter. The feathery pair are among an estimated half billion fowl who fly over Israel twice a year, on their way to and from their nesting grounds.
Until now, the spectacular arrival of vast flocks of birds in the Hula Valley in northern Israel has been regarded as a nuisance for the farmers whose seed they feed on, and a beautiful twice-yearly attraction for thousands of bird-watchers from around the world who flock to Israel to see the storks, pelicans, vultures, even eagles.
The key to understanding the spread of avian flu
But with outbreaks of deadly avian flu in East and Southeast Asia, Africa, Europe and Israel’s near neighbors Turkey and Egypt, Leshem says the fascinating journeys of birds like Princess and Jonas could be the key to understanding how avian flu might spread around the globe. Every autumn, birds from Northern Europe and Northeast Asia fly south, soaring past the eastern Mediterranean region before fanning out across Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, then fly the same route in reverse every spring. The resulting crush creates an avian air-traffic jam above Israel twice a year.
“Birds infected with avian flu originating in the Far East are funneled through the Israeli ‘bottleneck’ as the birds migrate, and the virus can be passed through the air,” said Leshem, an air force colonel. “If a flock of migrating geese land near a chicken farm, the virus can spread like fire.”
The 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, which apparently began when an avian flu mutated into a form that spread from person to person, killed at least 50 million people in the Western world and perhaps the same number in the undeveloped world, where records were not kept. Leshem hopes that his tracking stations will serve as the first line of defense against an equally devastating outbreak as this year’s bird flu (known as H5N1) makes its way around the globe.
“The biggest threat is a mutation of the virus and its transfer to people,” said Leshem. “We know that birds are disease carriers. It could be a worldwide disaster.”
To date, the H5N1 flu virus has killed 95 people, out of 175 confirmed human cases worldwide. Those deaths have occurred in a swath from China to Turkey, according to the World Health Organization. The virus, first detected in birds, jumped to humans in 1997. So far, there have been no confirmed cases of people passing on the virus to other people. And although health officials across the world are extremely worried about H5N1, there is no guarantee it will be the virus that will set off the next human pandemic.
Perched on a hillside near the Latrun junction, about 800 feet above sea level in the foothills of the West Bank, Gen. Leonid Dinevich recollects the days when he commanded 40 Soviet air bases, 500 warplanes and silos containing thousands of ballistic missiles. Back then, he occupied a spacious office at the top of a 14-story tower at a base in Kishinev in what is now Moldova.
Today, Dinevich, 64, spends nine hours a day in an MMR-5 radar station, a camouflaged hut on wheels with a 15-foot antenna circling slowly in a huge sphere mounted on the roof. The cramped interior is alive with blinking lights, computer screens and buzzing equipment.
In 1991, when Dinevich purchased the MMR-5 for $14,000 from one of his old bases in Ukraine, it was a state-of-the-art Soviet radar installation used to track weather for the USSR’s air force. Today, it still fulfills that function – every 15 minutes, Dinevich transmits data on weather patterns and cloud formation to nearby Ben-Gurion Airport and the Israeli air force.
On a second computer screen, the general follows the tracks of blue, red and brown arrowheads that mark the altitude, velocity, direction and sometimes even species of different flocks of birds migrating across Israel’s central plain.
“Once a general, always a general,” said Dinevich. “Today I am the general of millions of birds, defending against the new enemy of avian flu.”
Dinevich and Leshem established the Latrun radar to track migration patterns and warn aircraft of birds in their flight path to avoid collisions. Now they hope that the data collected at Latrun will be developed into an early-warning system to help halt the spread of disease.
“We want to create a network, with radar stations here in Israel, in Russia, in Bulgaria, in Turkey, in Jordan — and many more,” said Dinevich. “We have to unify them into a single system. On the screen you can see millions of birds on their way to Turkey. We can warn our friends in Turkey that tomorrow the birds will reach there, and they must cover up their poultry and other domestic birds. Then Turkey needs to warn Russia, and so on.”
So far, Israeli government scientists have not found any infected birds in their country. But they said vigilance was the best defense against a possible outbreak.
“No one can predict what will happen, but we should behave as if it is a real threat in order to make sure,” said Dr. Shimon Perk, head of the Avian Laboratory at the Veterinary Institute of the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture.
Perk has tested up to 20 flocks of birds every week in recent months, and so far has found no trace of avian flu virus.
“It’s a very big concern, but it hasn’t happened yet. It may be the same as with SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), where everyone predicted a big outbreak but it was successfully controlled. Maybe we’ll have the same luck here,” he said.
Disease knows no boundaries
Perk and his colleagues are urging poultry farmers to take a range of preventive measures to ensure that bird flu, if it comes, will not spread to neighboring farms. These include washing out vehicles, changing clothing and keeping poultry stocks under cover.
In keeping with the international nature of the threat, the Israeli experts have been working closely with regional colleagues.
Imad Atrash, director of the Palestine Wildlife Society, said the avian flu threat has brought together Israeli and Palestinian officials at a time when cooperation between the two governments on many other issues has come almost to a standstill.
“There is full cooperation,” said Atrash. “We are all aware that the disease will make no distinction between Israeli, Palestinian, Christian, Muslim or Jew. We all face the same problem. It will affect everyone. Disease knows no boundaries.”
Last month, Atrash and his colleagues tested 300 birds at the West Bank wildlife center in Jericho and found no sign of the virus. He said the precautions now being taken should be enough to prevent the disease from infecting local poultry, and to stop its spread if that fails.
“Things are very different than they were at the time of the pandemic nearly 100 years ago,” Atrash said. “Today we have the instant exchange of information and international cooperation between countries. We are updated every day and consult regularly with colleagues in more than 100 countries around the world.”
“I’m satisfied so far. We’re not yet at red alert, maybe yellow. The real danger will come with the migrations in the next year, but I’m thinking it will stay yellow,” he said.